“I never saw the faces of those I killed"

Walter Peeler was as tough as old boots – and trouble seemed to follow him around. The machine gunner with Australia’s 3rd Pioneers was disciplined four times before his bravery won him a Victoria Cross at Passchendaele. Wally’s taste for trouble did not end there – in 1940 he lied about his age to fight in the Second World War.

Wally was from Castlemaine, Victoria, and in his younger years appeared to have little respect for authority. Born in August 1887, the eighth child of a Tasmanian miner father and English mother, the foundry worker was nearly 30 when he joined up.

 Walter Peeler 
Walter Peeler. Credit: ©IWM (Q 68306)

He quickly ran into trouble. On the boat to England in February 1916, he was fined a day’s pay for going missing in Cape Town, South Africa. A year later in France, he broke censorship regulations by obliquely revealing his unit’s location in a letter and was fined two months’ wages. The following month he was reprimanded for leaving a loaded revolver in his billet. His worst run-in came in June 1917; as a Lewis gun instructor he was demonstrating how to clear a jam when the weapon went off, wounding one of his class. Wally was demoted to corporal.

A week later, restored to lance corporal, he was wounded by shrapnel at Messines Ridge, the prelude to Passchendaele. On October 4, Wally was among 24 3rd Pioneers machine gunners protecting the Australian 37th Battalion. Four battalions of Aussies supported by New Zealand troops were attempting to capture Gravenstafel Spur, a 1,950-yard strip of land at Broodseinde that bristled with German defenders amid the all-pervading mud.

As the 37th attacked with bombs and bayonets they were held up by snipers. Firing his Lewis gun from the hip, Wally broke cover and shot nine Germans. Three more times in less than an hour he repeated his attack, escaping without a scratch and killing more than 30 enemy soldiers. His VC citation said he had shown “an absolute fearlessness”. But in 1966 he played down his actions:

“I never saw the faces of those I killed. They were just men in an enemy uniform. It was simply them or me. I don’t think I was brave – not any more than the other Aussies who were with me. I simply had a job to do and I did it. Only afterwards did I realise how lucky I’d been not to get killed myself.”

Eight days later, Wally was badly wounded in the arm and was still recovering when he received his medal from George V in January 1918. The honour, the only First World War VC won by a Pioneer, promoted flag-flying celebrations in Castlemaine.

After the war Wally ran an orchard in his home town before moving to Melbourne to work in a combine harvester factory. In 1934 he became the first custodian of the city’s Shrine of Remembrance, built to commemorate 19,000 Victorians killed. Wally guided visitors at the memorial for 30 years – apart from one brief interval for the Second World War.

He was 52 in 1940 – 12 years over the age limit – but claimed he was 38 and served in Syria and Java, Indonesia, as staff sergeant with the 2/2 Pioneers. In 1942 he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and forced to work on the notorious Burma Railway.

Wally, whose son Donald was killed in action in the Solomon Islands, received the British Empire Medal and worked at the shrine until 1964. He died in 1968 aged 80.

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